What does it mean to be born again?
A Pharisee, a leader, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus by night: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” and Jesus answers him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
So is he saying that Nicodemus, having seen these things, has been born from above: that’s he’s been reborn and doesn’t know it. Maybe, but Nicodemus’s not sure, he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? And Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
He says a lot more, with phrases that have given heart and cause confusion to a lot of people in the last two thousand years, and our selection from John’s Gospel ends with this phrase: “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn, but in order that the world might be saved [made finally whole, find its right end, get home at last] through him.”
And what does that mean? How can we see the kingdom, how can we born again, how do we make it home at the last? Now you can find people who say it is a simple matter, “sign on the dotted line, simply have faith, and all will be well,” but that’s not my experience after living with this text for over 40 years, ever since I started looking for the kingdom, this new birth, this new reality of life, as a young man. No an easy answer, but maybe something better. For looking deeply into these texts might point you to a reality that is more than words: more vibrant, something that pushes back; like human flesh, like God meeting human flesh, and I want to share some ways we can explore the reality of this relationship
Many in the Anglican tradition make room with a model for learning and discernment that uses the image of a four-legged stool - with one leg each in scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It’s a way we keep our faith spacious, balanced, intimate and honest. But in no way is it easy.
First, we are people of the Scripture, and our daily lives need to be seen and understood in the history, poetry, genealogy, prophesy, revelation we see in the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament, as well as in the Christian Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation that we know as the New Testament. And don’t look for too much stained glass all the time: more politics, power plays, shortcuts, love, hate, sex, poetry, violence, history, hope, faith, bad weather and good news. This is both a family history and the foundational story of who we are a humans, the people who have tried - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes turning aside and getting it wrong, and starting again and again - to follow God.
We are also a people who have gathered, prayed, considered, and reflected in the light of those books for the last two thousand years. So there is an immense body of work, more writings, poetics, prophesy and politics, that need be considered: the work of the community gathered prayerfully throughout history, with bad mistakes and new beginnings, a deep and profound tradition that resounds and responds to the mighty acts of God over time, to the present day. So, Scripture and Tradition.
Then, we are a people who believe as well that the Spirit of God never ceases working in the whole world. In that light we use our reason to evaluate all good thoughts and actions, from all peoples and places and cultures, through education, the social and natural sciences, all technology, art and media, as ground for inspiration, redemption, recreation. We believe that the creation is good and we are not afraid to use our God-given reason.
And, finally, in light of the incarnation of God in Christ; we honor our very own lives, our corporate and personal experience. Here we take the chance that every one of us here, and everywhere, is a word of God, a gift of God: a place where God’s creativity, redeeming love, intimate conspiracy can come to new birth and speak in a new way. So Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience: these are the four components in this Anglican way as we come to consider what Jesus might mean for us.
That’s how we make sense of our part, both personal and corporate. But there is more. Jesus says, “Follow me,” follow me away from your old history into a new mystery, into a new and faithful pilgrimage to the future, through the old certainties and into the unfinished rhythm of a dying-rising life; right through the middle of life, death, resurrection and return.
How can we live with life this large, life asking this much? How do we follow the way of Jesus into these depths? Through water and the spirit, through faith and grace, being born again and again in the spirit; day by day, moment by moment, giving away and finding our lives within the heart of the Christian story, with the stories, the tradition, the reason and the community, through the way of the Christian year. Four more ways.
Listen: each one of us here has had a moment, and maybe more than one, where God opens our eyes to glory, care, compassion; to the fragile beauty of what it means to be on this tenuous human journey together. And that is perhaps a start of what it might mean to be born again, when, in a sense, our individual participation in the Christmas story comes alive: when Jesus – God’s word and work of love and acceptance and hope, God’s word for the long journey - is born in our lives. It is a kind of Christmas that grows up and moves out, enlightens us and lightens up the world we live in,;an Epiphany where people see the difference, note the newness and the change in us, taking us to a new way of being in the world, being born into a new world. If you’ve lived at all, you know you’ve lived like this.
But for most of us, it doesn’t last that long. The road gets narrow and turns, the fires or floods come, the foundations shake, and we lose the way. For life has tough times, tragic moments, dead ends. And here’s where the man on the cross is a silent and eloquent picture for each of us, a picture of each of us: caught where hope falls silent,, where all we know of faith falls dead, where we lose our lives. For every one there comes a time when you say, “I don’t know how in God’s name I am going to get through this.” and on Good Friday we see that God knows the way through.
That’s where the mystery comes: where we find the reality of the life and love of God rises up above all false hopes, and God’s life even has room for death. By grace we wake up to an Easter where new life opens in a new world, where hope is bigger than we know; where we can move to an new participation and understanding of - not only how big God is - but how intimate, how close God can come: a place where the whole creation seems to speak a new language, a Pentecost, where the deep intimacy of the Holy Spirit enlivens our lives and reforms our relations and our understandings. It may not always last, it usually doesn’t. But you will remember.
Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost! Life, Death, Resurrection, Return! The stories we tell every Sunday carry all the contradictions that come in living life on life’s terms, trying to be whole and human and holy; and Sunday after Sunday we stand in the middle of our lives, in the middle of this place, and say, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again! Life, death, resurrection, return! It’s the journey of a lifetime.
God has come to offer wholeness, salvation, companionship; and not by any kind of shortcut. “You must be born again!” Right through the middle of the world. It is usually not easy, it can hurt like hell, it made Jesus cry, there’s no room for a stained glass lens to filter out all the nasty bits, but it is worth it. For it is a way that can take you through with a kind of growing understanding and hope, through the tough times, the drought and floods, and into the last gathering, the final harvest, by the long way home.
Almost 20 years ago, when I was the chaplain at San Francisco State University, a really narrow, terribly unpleasant Christian pastor looked at me and asked, “Have you been born again?” And I said, "On a good day, at least four times!" The way God we follow is both that big and that intimate. Moving every instant: into a continuing and deeper participation in God’s creativity, God’s pilgrimage in flesh and history, God’s loving and continuing intercourse in the intimacy of the spirit. It is a wide way, a deep way, a wonderful way, a way that will grow you up and bring you back where you started for God’s sake. So we come here to learn what it means to be alive, dying and rising in a world where Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We come here, by the grace of God, to learn who we are.